Updated 5:31 p.m. EST
Haiti issued wildly conflicting death tolls for the Jan. 12 earthquake on Wednesday, adding to confusion about how many people actually died and to suspicion that nobody really knows.
A day after Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue raised the official death toll to 230,000, her office put out a statement quoting President Rene Preval as saying 270,000 bodies had been hastily buried by the government following the earthquake.
A press officer withdrew the statement, saying there was an error, but re-issued it within minutes. Later Wednesday, the ministry said that due to a typo, the number should have read 170,000.
The number buried in mass graves is not necessarily the same as the government's official estimate for the overall death toll and it remains unclear who's doing the counting.
Government officials were not available to comment on the confusion.
The 270,000 figure, which Preval's office said he announced at a meeting with South American presidents in Ecuador, was 40,000 higher than one released by Preval's communications minister the previous day, even though a gravedigger at the mass graves just north of Port-au-Prince said only two bodies have been buried there this week.
Haitian officials offer no convincing explanation for how they are compiling the death toll - which has climbed from a precise 111,481 on Jan. 23 to 150,000 on Jan. 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday before Wednesday's erroneous report of 270,000 and quick reversal to 170,000. Even some government officials are expressing skepticism about the numbers.
"I personally think that a lot of information being given to the public by the government is estimates," said Haiti's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Roc Magloire.
There is no doubt that the death toll whatever it is is one of the highest in a modern disaster.
A third of Haiti's 9 million people were crowded into the chaotic capital when the quake struck just to the southwest a few minutes before 5 p.m. Many were preparing to leave their offices or schools. Some 250,000 houses and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, according to government estimates, many crushing people inside.
For days, people piled bodies by the side of the road or left them half-buried under the rubble. Countless more remain under collapsed buildings, identified only by a pungent odor.
No foreign government or independent agency has issued its own death toll. Many agencies that usually can help estimate casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead. And the Joint Task Force in charge of the relief effort foreign governments and militaries, U.N. agencies and Haitian government officials quotes only the government death toll.
That toll has climbed from a precise 111,481 on Jan. 23 to 150,000 on Jan. 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday. Preval's count of 170,000 bodies buried in mass graves may represent only a piece of the toll but nobody at his office was available to clarify.
It's common in major disasters to see large discrepancies in death tolls: Governments may use lower figures to save face, or higher figures to attract foreign aid. In Haiti's case, however, where the very institutions responsible for compiling information were themselves devastated, reaching a death toll is particularly difficult.
Many citizens are even more cynical, accusing the government of inflating the numbers to attract foreign aid and to take the spotlight off its own lackluster response to the disaster.
"Nobody knows how they came up with the death count. There's no list of names. No list of who may still be trapped. No pictures of people they buried," said shop owner Jacques Desal, 45. "No one is telling us anything. They just want the aid."
A few days after the quake, the state-run public works department, known as the CNE, began picking up bodies from the streets and dropping them in trenches dug by earth movers in Titanyen, just north of the capital, amid rolling chalk and limestone hills that overlook the Caribbean Sea.
The trenches are 6 meters (20 feet) deep and piled 6 meters (20 feet) high.
Preval said the government has counted 170,000 bodies during those efforts, and that the number does not include people buried in private ceremonies. But at Titanyen on Wednesday, worker Estelhomme Saint Val said nobody had counted the bodies.
"The trucks were just dropping people wherever, and then we would move in and cover them up," he said. "We buried people all along the roads and roadsides. It was impossible to do a count."
And although the government death toll jumped by the thousands from Saturday to Tuesday, Saint Val said at noon Wednesday that only one truck had arrived this week, and it carried two bodies. He said workers received 15 truckloads of bodies a day just after the quake, but the numbers dropped off about 10 days ago.
Lassegue, in announcing the Tuesday death toll, refused to say how it was calculated.
"For the moment we count 230,000 deaths, but these figures are not definitive," she said. "It's a partial figure."
U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in Geneva, who has often cited Haitian government figures, said Wednesday that she said she doesn't know how Haiti is calculating the death toll: "We cannot confirm these figures."
Finding someone who can is difficult.
The government says the CNE is orchestrating the count. The CNE referred questions to the prime minister's office. The prime minister's chief of protocol referred questions to the prime minister's secretary-general. The prime minister's secretary-general could not be reached.
A report by the U.N. on Tuesday attributed the death toll to Haiti's Civil Protection Agency instead of the CNE. Civil Protection director Alta Jean-Baptiste referred questions to the Ministry of Interior. Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime said Wednesday that the Civil Protection toll is "217,000-and-some deaths," despite the higher number given by his government.
"Civil Protection, before giving out the numbers, really is doing a precise count and the numbers that they give out are numbers that are proven," he said.
He would not say how that count is being done.
A death toll of 230,000 would equal the number of people killed in the tsunami that devastated a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean following a magnitude-9.2 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. That disaster generated an outpouring of international aid in part because of the number of dead.
An extremely high toll "probably elicits more public sympathy, so it might generate more visibility, more funding," said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
But Byrs says inflating numbers can backfire.
"Regarding every estimate, we have to be very careful because we could lose credibility with donors, with humanitarian partners," she told The Associated Press. "If you boost the figure, it's counterproductive. It doesn't help when you try to match assistance to needs."